Morrissey producer Stephen Street on the state of modern mastering

Ever since Morrissey and Marr handpicked their 20-something session engineer to take charge of Meat Is Murder, Stephen Street¹s name has been synonymous with the best in UK indie rock. Street also took lead engineer duties on classic Smiths LP The Queen Is Dead, but it’s his production work that has helped define the past three decades of domestic commercial guitar music: from Blur’s Parklife to The Cranberries’ No Need To Argue; The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come to Babyshambles’ Shotter’s Nation; Morrissey’s Viva Hate to The Maccabees’ Colour It In; and The Courteeners’ St. Jude to Kaiser Chiefs’ Employment.

His seminal work with Blur will be celebrated with a special box-set released next month. 21 will contain all five Street-produced albums from the band, plus later efforts 13 and Think Tank, as well as five-and-a-half hours of previously unheard material. Street has spent many hours remastering Blur’s recordings for the release and it’s brought back plenty of memories for the man who first entered the music industry at Island Records in the early ’80s.

What have you brought to the table in terms of the new Blur boxset?

I’ve been mostly involved in remastering the five albums, B-sides and singles I made with the band. Graham [Coxon] has been unearthing old demos and unreleased material. He’s got a wealth of knowledge. It was a good team effort all round. I still haven’t heard the unreleased tracks. It’s well-known before I started work on the second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Blur had made an attempt at recording it with Andy Partridge from XTC – I can’t wait to hear that. I’m just as exited as any Blur fan, really. Don’t forget that Blur were so productive back then; for every single that came out, there was a CD single, a CD2 single, a 7" single and we had to record B-sides for each format. That’s a hell of a lot of music.

Does the rise of the CD super-box-set bring you some cheer as a producer?

After seeing music sales tumble and move to MP3 over the years? Yes, I’m very encouraged to see it. In my side of the industry i.e. the recording side we create the music that people love and that inspires them to go and see bands live. But it’s been diminished. The younger generation are happy to spend £200-plus on a festival ticket, but they’re not so happy to spend their money on recorded music. That’s really sickening to people who put a lot of time and effort into working with bands. When something like this happens, you see the work you’ve put in being appreciated by people who want to listen to it at its best, not through a pair of iPod earphones. Recorded music does have a value, and it’s nice to see now and again that people agree with me.

What’s your take on how digital music has affected sound quality?
In recent years we’ve seen what’s been commonly referred to as the ‘loudness wars’. With 21 we were able to cut the remasters of the older Blur records much louder than they were originally. But we were very careful not to go too loud to the point of everything being squared off, compressed and crushed to get maximum volume. Frank Arkwright, a very good mastering engineer at Abbey Road, discussed how loud we wanted to go before it started to affect the dynamics of the recording. We settled on a very good balance.

When EMI put out Blur’s last compilation, Midlife, two or three years ago, it was awful. I wish someone would have consulted me about that because the levels were all over the place, and I was really quite angry when I heard it. This time, I wanted to get it really, really right.

People can create music at home more easily than they could when The Smiths or Blur started off. Does that lend itself to a devaluing of music across the creative process?

It helps to chip away at it. You get all these people who have Garageband and think they’re suddenly a producer overnight; that what we do is easy. I can tell you that of all the bands I’ve worked with, the ones who’ve been big successes are those who have applied themselves to the recording process and put a huge amount of effort into it. I’m saddened by the fact that people who dedicate their life to production and regard themselves as professional are being devalued by people who do it part-time on their Mac
at the weekend. You get people slagging off bands for being ‘careerist’, The Cribs spring to mind with that argument, but they’re on their fifth album. Is that not a career that they’re embarking on? Johnny Marr’s been around for 20 years-plus; there’s nothing wrong with having a career in music. If you take it seriously and professionally, you should be valued and rewarded for the effort you put into your recordings.

Do you have any solutions to young people not valuing records like they do the live experience?

We have to re-educate them, but it’s going to be difficult. The NME recently did something on ‘the record that changed your life’. Whatever it was, it was probably funded by a label who invested in that band and probably invested in many others. Anyone who thinks that downloading for nothing is sticking it to the man is wrong. The majority of records that changed people’s lives were recorded properly through a proper label.

You’re best known for your work on guitar music, which isn’t doing the business in the charts like it once was. Why might that be happening?

Because the fanbase who would have been buying The Smiths or The Cure or The Bunnymen records in the ’80s, or the Blur, Oasis or Pulp records in the ’90s don’t buy records anymore. So the charts is full of the music kids download from iTunes. Those bands like Arctic Monkeys, The Maccabees, Mystery Jets and so on should have big hit records in 2012, but they don’t. Their fanbase don’t go and buy their records.

Is that a particular problem with guitar music? Why does the indie music audience download for free in your view?

They’re savvy to the fact they can get something for nothing. If they’re spending their money of packets of cigarettes, drink and going to festivals, they think: ‘I would pay that £7.99 for an album off iTunes, but I’m going to buy my fags instead’. But music is not expensive. I’m sorry, £7.99 for an album is a very low price considering the work that’s gone into it. I used to work in a record shop in the 1970s and I remember putting albums out for £5.99. If everything moved with inflation, albums would be a lot more than they are today, but they’re not because the market dictates the price. The danger is that all the big bands at festivals have enjoyed big record sales in the past. Where’s the next generation of real, big headliners going to come from?

Perhaps with the exception of Kasabian or Arctic Monkeys – both over a decade old – there aren’t many ‘new’ indie guitar band headliners. Does that concern you?

It doesn’t concern me as long as they’re good performers. But I do think over the next few years, the festival market will shrink because of that fact. The reason festivals are so popular at the moment is that it’s an easy way of sharing the cost of touring. A lot of people have the misconception that bands make money from touring. They do if they’re really, really established, but when they’re starting off, they don’t. I know for a fact that Blur didn’t make any money from touring until after the Parklife album. Those were the days you went to your record company cap in hand for tour support, to make it possible to get out on the road. By the time you’ve paid your sound man, lighting, backstage crew, the amplification, the PA system etc, you make nothing, unless you sell a few T-shirts. You played gigs in the hope your CD would sell. We’re now in a situation where bands have to come to terms with the fact their album is not going to sell anything. It’s become a free advert to see them at festivals. But that’s the tail wagging the dog as far as I’m concerned.

Do you see the impact on your position and the demand for top-end producers?

It’s the same for everyone in the business. Recording studios have to cut their costs and you’re seeing them close down, which makes me very angry and very sad. You see great studios like Olympic being closed down because they can’t pay their rates. The bigger problem is that lots of young engineers and producers have already worked out that the records they’re creating aren’t making money.

It’s really difficult to come through and progress from that point. Young producers aren’t getting the breaks because the money’s not there. The budgets available to make records now are far less than they were in the ’90s.

The MPG fights to get better credits for producers on iTunes and other services. Do you think there¹s a lack of accreditation for people on your side of the mixing desk?

I totally agree. When I was a kid listening to T-Rex and David Bowie, I remember seeing the name Tony Visconti and reading up on who he was, as well as his production style and the other bands he’d worked with. It’s a real shame that there’s no information on iTunes about which studio recorded an album, or who the producer was – that’s how I learnt about the greats and how I came to be inspired. For young engineers or recording trainees, seeing your name on a record that’s selling is a huge, huge boost. It’s not just the producer, it’s the whole team that work on it.

Do you have one record that you look back on with more pride than any you’ve been involved in?

From the point of view of personal achievement, it would be Viva Hate [which Street produced and co-wrote]. That went against all the odds in the shadow of The Smiths breaking up. It could have gone horribly wrong and I could have been the most hated man
in the UK. Then on the fifth Blur record Blur, I really think we hit our creative stride. I’m very, very proud of that record, it was a big
milestone in both Blur’s career and my own.

Why do Smiths records still fascinate and interest young people today?

First of all, Morrissey was unlike anyone else in his vocal delivery and his lyrics, he was a complete one-off original. He was and is a true genius and I don’t like using that word lightly. And then you had Johnny, who’s just an incredible guitarist. They were a very hard-working unit. Everyone goes on about Morrissey and Marr all the time, but they were a really tight unit; Andy [Rourke] and Johnny were tuned into each other and Mike was a very solid drummer. Because they were so original in their approach to writing, we weren’t caught up in that ’80s fashion of trying to sound contemporary; that’s helped the records age really well. I’m incredibly proud of being involved in The Smiths, and grateful for them for giving me my big break as a fledgling producer.

Who are the best music industry execs you’ve worked with?

The ones who spring to mind immediately are Tony Wilson and Geoff Travis; both extremely huge music fans who understand the artist. It was always a pleasure working on records for those two guys.

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